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Tomorrow's Vatican documents: annulment reform, with the Synod in mind?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 07, 2015

There’s big news coming from Rome tomorrow: Pope Francis will release two canonical documents, reforming the process for marriage annulments. We don’t yet know just what those documents will say.

Nearly every Vatican-watcher expects that the Pope will make it easier for Catholics to receive a ruling of annulment. The titles of the forthcoming documents, referring to the meekness and mercy of the Lord Jesus, tend to confirm those expectations. Indeed, since Pope Francis speaks constantly about mercy, it is difficult to imagine that his reforms would not pick up the same theme.

However, the Pope could make it easier to obtain an annulment in one of two ways. He could streamline the canonical process, making it simpler to work a case through the marriage tribunals. Or he could ease the requirements, giving those tribunals broader latitude to decree marriages null. (Theoretically, of course, he could do both.) In all likelihood the documents released tomorrow will take the former route, and focus on the process.

There is widespread support, among bishops and canon lawyers, for reform of the annulment process: a general agreement that marriage tribunals could be more efficient in producing results. There is much more debate about changing the canonical requirements for annulments. To put it a bit differently, Church experts agree that Catholics seeking annulments should be able to expect a prompt and fair ruling; they do not necessarily agree on what standards the marriage tribunals should use in reaching those decisions.

The consensus in favor of reforming the process was in evidence last October, during the meeting of the Synod of Bishops. During a contentious debate on whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion, many prelates observed that the pastoral problems could be eased if the tribunals were more accessible.

It is intriguing, therefore, that the Pope is announcing his reforms just a few weeks before the Synod convenes again. Only last September, he formed a special commission to suggest changes in the process. It took a remarkably fast pace for those reforms to be proposed, accepted, codified, and promulgated in less than a year; it seems evident that the Pope wanted this done before the October Synod meeting.

Does the Holy Father hope to take the issue of annulment reform off the table, so that the Synod can concentrate on the knottier question of Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics? Does he want to ease the pressure for a dramatic change? Or to increase it?

We’ll know much more tomorrow.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 09, 2015 2:12 PM ET USA

    So now, from retrospect, where are the "radical" changes the media have been thundering about for two days?